Google Glass: there'll be tears before bedtime

Bettings on the first lawsuit?

Mmm, in two minds, or should that be having double vision over Google Glass.

Can’t be the only one still wary of people approaching one on Westminster Bridge waving their arms like an Italian chef and talking animatedly, seemingly to themselves. Are they hands-free on their phone talking to a chum in Kilmarnock, or a recent escapee from a facility who might toss one summarily over the parapet merely for looking at them awry? And now people will be issuing instructions to their glasses, or rather the embedded computer screen in their specs’ interactive Google Glass, something recent facility escapees likely do anyway, possibly imagining they already have a computer screen there. How much more wary will that make you feel as you’re crossing a bridge alone at dusk, or standing too close to the crowded Underground platform edge?

At the same time, trying to navigate the side streets with the map app on the phone, or sat nav, can be a literal pain in the neck. So I can see the advantages and convenience of being able to see your directions on your specs.

I’m also of the generation where wearing glasses as a kid, especially if pink plastic NHS-issue with the obligatory sticking plaster holding together the broken bridge, labelled you four eyes, specstic, Joe 90, Piggy (see Lord of the Flies) or, for some reason the one I found least offensive, Milky Bar Kid.  But now the bespectacled boot will be on the other foot and the Google Glass generation presumably won’t be seen dead without their intelligent face furniture. And, as they’re already used to donning specs, not to mention finding them first thing in the morning crushed under the pillow or suspended from the toothbrush stand, existing glasses wearers will also be the most successful early adopters of the new technology. Finally, we’ll be ahead of the pack and be able to look down our noses through our Google Glass at the uninitiated as their heads swim trying to focus going down the stairs.

So far, according to Google’s YouTube vid, besides using them as a heads up walking or driving sat nav, you’ll be able to  take pictures  or video with your Google Glass glasses – generally, it seems according to the film, while , stunt flying, skiing or roller coastering – or you can browse the web or skype.  All you have to do is say “OK glass, take a picture” etc.  You can see how that is going to make you appear one anchovy short of a pizza.

And you’ll probably be able to do more besides following Google Glass glasses experiments with real users – as opposed to Google people, including Sergey Brin himself, who was recently spotted putting a pair through their navigation technology paces on the New York subway. Had he even thought of consulting the map?

The company is currently looking for 8000 “bold, creative individuals” in the US to field-test them (for which privilege they will have to pay $1500 to buy their own). As part of the deal they have to say how they’d use them in their 50-word application for the trial and are being invited to come back later with other ideas and “be part of shaping the future of Glass” – there’s an ambition.

Google Glasses guinea pigs have to be 18,  pick up their specs in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco and get their applications in by 02.59 am US Eastern Time (for some reason) on February 28.

As well as talking to your Google Glasses, it seems, you will be able to listen to them through your skull. A patent filing to the Federal Communications Commission included a system for playing sound via a “bone-conduction” device rather than earphones or plugs (buds to our US readers).

So when will Google Glasses be on general release and all of us trying to look at at least two things at once?  There seems to be no definite date yet, but it will likely be sooner rather than later given that others are snapping at Google’s smart specs heels. Motorola is on the case with a more technical “headset computer system” for professional users like engineers and emergency services, while Oakley has Airwave ski goggles with a heads up display giving the wearer’s speed and telling them what music they’re listening too in cases where they’ve taken a tumble, bumped their heads and forgotten. 

Other companies offered up prototypes of similar devices at the last Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in LA.  Among them were Vuzix, with its Android-driven M100 smartphone specs including computer screen and video.

Also driving the market are forecasts that annual international  “wearable mobile” sales could be worth over $1.5 bn as soon as 2014.

However, you do also wonder how soon after these things become de rigeur for the wired that the first lawsuit will be lodged against Google and/or Apple by someone who walks under the bus or taxi they neither saw nor heard due to videoing and following directions on their glasses, while listening to AC/DC or talking to someone on their iPhone.

As a further caution before the big launch, Google could also do worse than watch that Steve Martin comedy film classic The Jerk.  Here the humble gas pump attendant Navin R Johnson (Martin) helps out a customer with loose specs by welding a small wire prop-cum-handle to the bridge. This becomes the patented Optigrab and makes Johnson a fortune, but then ruins him when it renders wearers cross-eyed and they launch a class action. He’s left with just a remote control, a thermos and a paddleball. Even his dog Shithead deserts him.

Mr Brin, you have been warned. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.